Buying Luxury: Toxic or Tender, Loving Care?

According to a 2014study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology, “retail therapy not only makes people happier immediately, but it can also fight lingering sadness.”  The study states that “sadness is generally associated with the feeling that life is out of our control. However, the act of choosing something and shopping can restore a feeling of personal control and autonomy.” 

Likewise, could having the control to buy something expensive and luxurious be empowering? Dr.Christian Wheeler, a professor of marketing and business out of Stanford University describes how going shopping embodies four main principles:

  1. Objects carry meaning to people (worth, beauty, status, liberty, confidence, etc.), and once they purchase it, the meaning transfers over to them.
  2. The natural act of associating objects with our identity can lead us to paying more for things than we normally would to maintain and affirm our identities.
  3. Owning an object with symbolic meaning affects how we view ourselves and even how we perform tasks.
  4. People acquire and abandon objects to identify with certain groups and classes.

More simply, while there is absolutely no shame in buying ourselves nice things or feeling beautiful in a new dress or suit, it’s true that companies employ marketing tactics that profit from consumers’ willingness to identify with objects. They know that people will ultimately pay more for luxury because they are not only purchasing a product, they are purchasing an experience or a piece of their identity. 

“The complementary studies ofDr. David Dubois, an expert on data-driven marketing, show that people seek out luxury because it enables them to differentiate from others and to participate and endorse in social hierarchies.” People also like luxury because of “its ability to satisfy their need for uniqueness or to demonstrate their power.” Furthermore, “wearing a luxury brand increases how smart and capable a consumer feels that they are. It also increases their perceived social recognition, and it increases their expectation of compliance from others.”

Given that, does luxury pose a potential psychological threat to consumers? 

According to Dr.Steven Shugan, a graduate professor of managerial economics at the University of Florida, the answer is yes and no. Wearing and buying nice clothes releases dopamine and endorphins(Scott Bea, PsyD), but there is inherently a payoff that luxury companies reap from the insecurities, the dreams, and even the egotism of consumers. Because “predicting consumer behavior is instrumental, if not invaluable to designing more effective marketing tactics and profitable strategies,” companies, especially luxury companies, must know how to influence consumer behavior in order to ensure that their products’ price point and symbolic meaning remains feasible, believable, and suitable in the minds of consumers.

Therefore, it could be argued that luxury brands, through marketing, have to make sure that consumers continue to define themselves by material objects. As mentioned before, it’s human nature to identify with objects, but the extent to which one does is meaningful. When consumers need these objects in order to feel like themselves, to feel worthy, or to even feel competent, the nature of luxury companies is called into question. It’s true that no one is forcing consumers to need luxury, but it’s important to understand how luxury brands play a fundamental role in signaling class, beauty, and human worth by creating not only a demand but a need around their products through marketing.